Joanne Walsh - Not Just Another Hysterical Housewife
December 4, 1981
It was the dead of winter, 1981. Jim Walsh had gone to bed while his wife Joanne stayed up to watch a little more TV. Jim heard a noise and went downstairs to find his wife had fallen out of her chair and was shaking on the floor. Joanne did not respond as Jim called out her name. He immediately called 911. The local volunteer fire department emergency medical technicians were there in a matter of minutes. When they arrived, Joanne had already started to come around. They gave her oxygen and she improved greatly. She regained consciousness, was talking and interacting appropriately. With the oxygen still in place, Joanne was taken to the nearest hospital, Brookhaven Memorial in Patchogue, on Long Island, New York. It was about 3:30 am when she arrived in the Emergency Room. The EMT’s took their supplemental oxygen with them. The Hospital did not replace it.
When the on duty ER doctor, Peter Dente, finally got around to seeing Joanne, he apparently did not think her case was at all serious. He did not pay any attention to the fact that she had collapsed at home, nor that she had gotten better with oxygen. Instead, he diagnosed her with “acute hysteria.” In other words, Dr. Dente jumped to the conclusion that he was dealing with “just another hysterical house wife.” He ordered her sedated with Valium. Now she would not bother him any more. She was put aside and ignored until she awoke again. Then Dr. Dente ordered a more serious sedative, an injection of Thorazine. This really knocked Joanne out. She was placed in a cubicle by herself. When hospital staff finally bothered to check on her hours later, she was in a Coma. She had suffered massive brain damage. She would spend the rest of her life in a wheel chair, unable to move and unable to speak. She had what Neurologists call “locked-in syndrome.” This means that she fully understood what was going on around her, but was completely incapable of reacting to it.
It was 8 long years later that Mr. Spencer first learned of Joanne’s case. Two other senior lawyers in the firm had recommended that the case be dropped because they could not figure out what had happened. They thought that perhaps whatever caused her to collapse at home had been the real cause of her brain damage. The managing partner asked Mr. Spencer to take one last look at the case before they abandoned it.
As he always does, Mr. Spencer went thoroughly through the records. He saw that Joanne had asthma. He noted that she greatly improved with the oxygen that the local volunteers had given her. He knew that Joanne was not just another hysterical housewife. And he doubted that what had cause her to collapse at home was serious since she recovered so easily and did particularly well with just a little supplemental oxygen. Mr. Spencer also doubted that Valium would have done her any harm. It probably only caused her to fall asleep. But, Mr. Spencer was suspicious of the Thorazine. He looked up the known effects of Thorazine. A clear warning was given by the manufacturer of Thorazine that patients must be carefully monitored the first time they are given the drug as it may cause a precipitous drops in blood pressure in some patients. Mr. Spencer knew from the record that not only was Joanne’s blood pressure not monitored after giving the Thorazine, but nobody was even checking in on her. Mr. Spencer then checked the recommended first time dosages and found out that Dr. Dente had order twice as much as the manufacturer recommended.
Mr. Spencer then started talking to his expert witnesses. They all confirmed that his theory was correct. In likelihood, Joanne had suffered from some breathing difficulties that caused her to pass out. Dr. Dente, not getting a good history and not doing much of an examination, entirely missed Joanne’s real problem. His Valium did not help. But, it also probably did not hurt. The Thorazine was the real culprit. It almost certainly caused a big drop in blood pressure such that Joanne’s brain was deprived adequate blood supply. CT scans confirmed that brain had been massively damaged.